As we lurch our way into summer movie season, full of preposterous chases and heroes in spandex and wicked awesome ‘splosions, it’s always nice when our local cineplex also features a movie about, you know, human beings. Makes for a refreshing change of pace. That’s Gifted; that’s its role in the cosmos. To remind us that movies can also just be about people.
Not that the people in Gifted are all that ordinary. Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is, by any measure, an unusual seven-year old; a mathematical genius. She lives with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), who repairs boat engines for a living, and who has home-schooled her up til now. As the movie begins, she’s about to start her first day in school, and she doesn’t want anything to do with it. Her best friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who lives next door, doesn’t like the idea either. Frank, on the other hand, thinks she needs a normal-ish childhood. She needs friends her own age; she needs social skills. (She does have a cat, a one-eyed stray she adores). And so, off she goes, into the classroom of a kind, sweet teacher named Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Who she dazzles when she’s able to multiply two three digit numbers in her head.
And Roberta’s fears come to fruition. Bonnie talks to her principal (Elizabeth Marvel), who pulls some strings and gets Mary a full-tuition scholarship to a special academy for gifted children. Which Uncle Frank turns down, a decision the principal finds incomprehensible. (She’s the first of the movie’s awful-female-authority-figure characters). But word of the whole Mary situation somehow manages to reach the ears of Mary’s only other blood relative, her grandmother (Frank’s mom), Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Who is a monster. Well-meaning, certainly. But someone who has, uh, plans.
Most of the rest of the movie involves the slow revealing of the backstories of three people; Frank, Evelyn, and Mary’s brilliant mother, Diane, who committed suicide, but not before turning over custody of her daughter to her brother. Diane was a math prodigy, who spent her life working on one of the Millennium Prize math problems. (There are seven such problems, only one of which has, currently, been solved; the premise of the movie is that Diane was working on one of the others). Evelyn thinks that Mary could finish her mother’s work, and wants her to receive the training that might make that possible. Frank, meanwhile, wants Mary to be a kid. And a custody battle ensues.
I liked the movie quite a bit. I thought Chris Evans and Jenny Slate were both marvelous, and Octavia Spencer is always great, though this movie didn’t give her enough to do. And the child actress who played Mary, McKenna Grace (who also plays the President’s daughter on Designated Survivor) was terrific. Adorable, like any little kid, but also plausibly bright. As the plot unfolded, it also kept surprising; my wife’s main reaction was that every time she thought she’d figured it out, it managed to throw in a plausible but unforeseen twist.
I agree. At the plot level, it’s inventive and interesting. At the character/moral level, it’s more predictable. It bothered me, the moral mapping of the movie, which almost Marxist. Academic: bad. Worker class: good. It’s one of those movies that suggests that the lives of egghead intellectuals are somehow less grounded, less in touch, less moral than the lives of good old solid salt-of-the-earth blue collar folks. Frank was once a philosophy professor. Now, he repairs boat motors, and that has made him a more caring, compassionate guy. Roberta is, again, salt-of-the-earth. Not one of those fancy-schmancy intellectuals. We approve of Frank’s budding romance with Bonnie, because, you know, she’s a school teacher. Smart, of course, but not too smart. But Grandma’s a schmuck.
The academics we meet are all creeps. Grandma Evelyn takes Mary to MIT, so her capabilities can be tested by a math professor. The prof is an arrogant jerk, who, giving Mary a problem to solve, throws some mistakes in there on purpose. And Mary catches those mistakes, but doesn’t correct him initially, because she’s a polite, well-raised child who doesn’t show up grown-ups. Prof of course, is nonetheless impressed by Mary’s ability to write formulae on a chalkboard. In a custody trial scene, we meet Mary’s biological father (completely absent her entire life), and his ignorance of and indifference to Diane and whatever became of the child he fathered are revelatory.
And, of course, Evelyn is horrible. Just horrible. She’s clearly the villain of the piece, and her ambitions for her granddaughter are so obviously self-serving, it becomes completely implausible that any judge, anywhere, would grant her custody over any child. (Especially when, it turns out, she tries to murder Mary’s cute one-eyed cat!) Lindsay Duncan is a marvelous actress, and she does her best to give Evelyn some moments of vulnerability, but the writing defeats her. On a movie-evil-woman-character scale, she edges out Cruella DeVille.
The blatant villainy of Evelyn throws the film off a bit, for me. I liked the movie a lot, and loved all the acting performances, and loved the little girl, and liked the story. What I’m going to say next is weird, because stories are stories, and history is just a narrative, but it’s a film I think I would have liked better if it were based on a true story. It was just implausible enough that it could have used that hint of authenticity.
Still, if you just can’t face the thought of yet another superhero movie, and just want a pleasant, feel-good, comedy/drama about a real sweet kid, I’d go see Gifted. There are a lot more reasons to like it than to not like it. Plus Chris Evans is genuinely charismatic. And McKenna Grace is sensational.